Saving the Sheikh
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Rachid thought about the mix of women and said, “Probably not that much. My grandmother and Zhang’s mother joined them. How much fun could they be having?”
With a certain level of apprehension, Zhang led her mother into the main rooms of the women’s quarters, where she knew her friends were already gathered. The room was at least four times the size of her own sitting room and split into several sections, designated by clusters of modern leisure furniture and rugs topped with pillows likely also meant as seating. All of the women stood when she entered.
Hadia approached and greeted her with several cheek kisses. Zhang stopped counting after the third. When the older woman looked behind her and saw her mother, her face lit up with real joy. She stopped short of touching her.
Xiaoli politely looked down in greeting while instructing her daughter in Mandarin, “Don’t let that woman touch me.”
Hadia looked to Zhang for a translation. In English, Zhang lied. “She said that it’s an honor to meet you.”
Hadia smiled and ushered them both in.
Abby and Lil stepped forward together to greet Zhang. Abby gave her a short hug and said, “You look so beautiful, Zhang!”
Lil crushed Zhang to her in a much more exuberant embrace. “This palace is fantastic, isn’t it? You must love it here. Just exotic enough to feel like you’re in another country without having to wonder how to use the toilets.”
Leave it Lil to put everything in perspective.
Zhang smiled and hugged her friend. She stepped back and introduced them to her mother. “Abby, Lil, this is my mother Yajun Xiaoli. You may call her Mrs. Yajun. Please excuse the fact that she doesn’t speak English.”
Xiaoli smiled politely at the two women and said, “These are the women you told me about? I imagined them more beautiful.”
Under her breath, Zhang said, “Stop, Mother.”
Abby cut into the conversation with an easy smile and, without noting that she’d understood Xiaoli’s comment, used some of the little Mandarin she knew. “Mrs. Yajun, nice to meet you.”
Zhang held back her amusement when her mother’s jaw dropped. Xiaoli slowly recovered her composure and returned the greeting. With a tight smile, she said, “My daughter didn’t mention that you spoke Mandarin.”
A born peacemaker, Abby said, “My vocabulary is quite limited, but you are welcome to sit beside me tonight if you’d like someone to speak with.”
Somewhat chastised, her mother thanked Abby but refused to meet her daughter’s eyes. Which was probably a good thing because Zhang wasn’t sure she could have kept a straight face.
Lil bowed her head in greeting to Zhang’s mother but addressed her sister as she did. “Abby, you are so lucky to know as many languages as you do.”
Abby smiled at Zhang and said, “It has plusses and minuses.”
In that small joke, Zhang was reminded of one of the many reasons she loved these women. Abby could have taken her mother’s comment to heart and been offended. Instead, she found humor in the situation and therefore made the entire evening more bearable. No matter what happened, they could laugh about this later.
A final woman stepped forward, and Zhang guessed that she must be the infamous image consultant of Dominic’s new hacker. Although Jeremy Kater was touted to be brilliant with computers, Zhang’s one encounter with him had left her with the impression that he had not spent much time outside his basement. She didn’t envy this woman’s job. Zhang extended a hand and said, “You must be Jeisa Borreto. I’m pleased you could join us.”
The beautiful Brazilian woman stepped forward and took Zhang’s hand warmly in hers. “The pleasure is mine. I hope I’m not intruding on this special occasion. I didn’t want to not attend since I was invited, but I see now that this is a very private affair and I should probably retire back to my room.”
Lil interjected, “You can’t miss this, Jeisa.”
Zhang held the woman’s hand a moment longer and said, “I would be honored if you stayed and joined us.”
With that, all the women moved to sit on one side of the room. An uncomfortable silence fell over the group as no one was quite sure what to say.
Hadia asked Jeisa, “Where are you from?”
With a light Portuguese accent, the golden-skinned beauty said, “Santo Amaro. Have you been there, Your Majesty?”
Hadia shook her head and said, “Regretfully, no, but I have heard it called the Manhattan of Brazil, so I imagine it is quite crowded and full of fashion.”
Jeisa smiled in approval and said, “I believe they would accept that description.”
As that topic concluded, another awkward lull stretched on. Zhang looked down at the watch on her wrist. Where the hell is the henna artist? I thought she’d be here by now.
A servant entered with a tray of fruits, dips and a variety of breads. Hadia was the first to be served, then Zhang and the other guests. The women sampled the foods quietly. Just as Zhang was ready to label the evening as one of the longest and most painful in recent memory, Lil stood and said, “I have a surprise for you that might liven up this party. Zhang, may I?”
Xiaoli murmured, “I hope she didn’t bring a stripper.”
Abby concurred in Mandarin, “Me too.”
The two women exchanged a quick look, then returned their attention to the bubbly brunette who was setting up a small radio in the corner of the room.
When Zhang didn’t call the surprise to a halt, Lil took that as permission to steamroll ahead. Almost instantly, the room filled slow and sensuous Egyptian music. The playful tempo was undeniably captivating. Lil rushed to a pile of boxes she had set nearby and began to hand them out. “I picked these up at a party store, so they aren’t authentic or anything, but I’m glad that I purchased extra so everyone can have one.”
Lil bowed and gave Hadia her box. “Your Majesty, I hope you don’t find this offensive.”
Not that that would stop Lil. Zhang smiled and gracefully accepted her own large gift box.
When all the boxes were passed out Zhang realized that everyone was waiting for her to open hers first. She did and lifted up what looked like a green bikini top adorned with gold chains and medallions for everyone to see.
Lil added hastily, “In the box, there is also a gold-coin belt for everyone. Those are real. I thought they would make a nice memento of this weekend.”
As the women opened their boxes and touched the gaudy harem outfits, each more fanciful than the last, Zhang found herself honestly speechless. It was one of those moments where time suspends and you wrestle with a thousand different conflicting reactions.
Abby spoke first, her embarrassment painfully obvious. “Oh, Lil.”
Lil defended her gift, not fully reading the mood of the women around her. “It’s perfectly appropriate, Abby. I read up about Najriadian customs and how the henna party is all about the women dancing and celebrating. There were several mentions of improvisational belly dancing being popular. I thought this would be fun.” She looked around and took in the lack of enthusiasm and turned her question to Zhang. “You’re not embarrassed, are you, Zhang? This could be fun, couldn’t it?”
Zhang looked at her mother but couldn’t read the older woman’s expression. She turned to Hadia and was surprised to see her smiling.
Hadia said, “There was dancing at my henna party and music very similar to what you chose, Lil.” Her smile widened. “I can’t say that I ever wore anything like this, but I can see how it would be – as you say – fun.”
Hesitation fell away and Lil said, “So you could show us some traditional dance moves?” She moved her hands in a stiff impression of a Hawaiian dancer.
Only Lil would ask the mother of a king to provide dance lessons.
Zhang held her breath.
Hadia stood and secured the gold-coin belt around her waist. “I believe I could.” She looked down at Zhang’s mother, who had not yet opened her box. “I would wear the attire you provided, but by my age some things are best covered.” She turned to Zhang. “Your mother, however, is quite youthful. I’ll demonstrate some traditional moves, if she will adorn herself with the outfit Lil purchased for her.”
Mouth dry and quickly losing an inner battle to hide her shock, Zhang translated the dare to her mother. Fully expecting her mother to issue a haughty refusal, Zhang was stunned when Xiaoli opened her box, carefully inspected each article it contained and smiled slowly.
Xiaoli started to say, “Tell the –” Then she hesitated and glanced at Abby before responding to Zhang with more care. “Tell your new grandmother that I also used to dance and that I would be honored to learn from her.” She stood and said, “Please direct me to a changing room.”
Zhang pointed to a powder room across the room, then watched her mother walk away with her head held high and Lil’s present tucked under her arm. Zhang met Hadia’s twinkling eyes and whispered, “I can’t believe she’s doing it.”
Hadia smiled and said, “Lil told me of the dare that brought you and my grandson together.” Before Zhang had a chance to be embarrassed, she continued, “I wondered where you got your spunk from. Now I see.” She turned to the rest of the women in the room and said, “Of course, you should honor Lil’s gifts by wearing them this evening. Zhang’s mother cannot be the only woman here who is brave enough to do it.”
Zhang whispered to her soon-to-be grandmother, “You are so bad.”
Hadia answered with more emotion than Zhang expected her to. “Life is short, Zhang. It is meant to be embraced fully. There will be plenty of reasons to be serious tomorrow. Let yourself enjoy tonight. We gather without the men for a reason. There is no one here to tell us what is or isn’t appropriate.” She raised her arms gracefully above her head and wiggled her hips from side to side. “Tonight we dance.”
When Xiaoli returned from the bathroom, Zhang was stunned at how beautiful her mother looked. Her slim form was accentuated by the costume’s small top, and its white sequined harem pants both revealed her flat stomach and flashed her legs as she walked. Although her mother and Hadia spoke different languages, in that moment, they understood each other perfectly.
Two women, beyond the age where many considered themselves attractive, demonstrated that they were both still sensual and vital. Hadia began to move her hips in an angular, repetitive motion that Xiaoli mirrored with ease. The image of the women together was so striking that at first no one moved from their seats. What started as two very separate styles met somewhere in the middle as Hadia adapted some moves to reflect how Xiaoli held herself, and Xiaoli became as fluid and free as the music.
Lil came to stand beside Zhang and said, “Your father may thank me for this later.”
No, no, no. Zhang groaned. You’re killing what was a hot fantasy and potentially scarring me for life.
Lil took Zhang by the hand and said, “Come on, we can’t let them have all the fun.”
There was a knock on the outside door and a servant entered, followed by a henna artist.